What defines a good test side? The obvious answers include bowlers who can pick up 20 wickets, a good all rounder, a cogent number 3 and an astute leader. One aspect that can get overlooked is the role of the openers. Throughout crickets vast history the sides that have genuinely done well have always relied on a good opening pair. Grenidge and Hayenes, Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Hayden and Langer, Chauhan and Gavaskar. And more recently Cook and Strauss for England. The openers form your frontline against the opposition. They are the guys in the coalface and while their importance can easily be overlooked, it cannot be denied.
Sri Lanka have had the ingredients to make decent test sides in the past. But too often they have excelled at them sporadically. And currently the role of the openers appears to be an area where they are not even bothering with. And at the heart of the issue is Tilekeratne Dilshan. Dilshans career was reignited in 2009 when he was asked to open. You can’t fault a man for taking his opportunities and Dilshan reeled off the runs at 65 in that first year. Since then though, he has been a bit hit and miss. In a phase of Sri Lankas cricket where Dilshan is the senior opener his inconsistency is hurting the team badly
Since the lofty heights of 2009 Dilshan has only scored 1 century. And while centuries from an opener are important the issue has been the scores in-between. In 19 of his 28 innings since January 2010 (when he opened) he has not scored more than 35. The domino effect has been that the Sri Lankan opening pair have only gone past 35 on 13 occasions out of 30 innings in that same period.. That is a failure rate of nearly 60%. Every game Sri Lanka have lost over the last year has been due to poor starts. They have been unable to get to a competitive total in the first innings, scores over 300 have been scarce, and that has largely been due to the fact that they are on the back foot almost as soon as the game starts.
Dilshan might not be at fault entirely for those losses or the paucity of big totals. But as the opener he plays a significant role in providing his number 3 and middle order a platform to build on. Kumar Sangakkara has virtually become an opener in the past 12 months. This is one of the reasons why he has developed a dangerous trend in starting series poorly. As a number 3 it is workplace hazard you should expect. But when you are consistently being put under pressure early on failure is just around the corner. It hasn’t helped that Mahela Jayawardene has also been out of touch. But that again only personifies Dilshans importance in getting Sri Lanka off to a solid start.
Dilshan was never a natural opener. He plied his trade in the middle order for years where he would generally come in against the spinners and the older ball. With opening comes the challenge of technique and adaptability. The moving red ball is vastly different to the white ball, where Dilshan is still a threat. As soon as there is movement Dilshans attacking abilities were going to be tested. A poor run against teams with good opening bowlers backs this up. He is also a confidence man. Lack of runs leads to self doubt. Self doubt leads to being unable to trust your instincts. Right now Dilshans head appears to be in a muddled mess. Against Australia lack of self belief made him drop himself down the order. Against England, he was not confident enough to come out and do the job he is being paid to do.
But the problem with the openers doesn’t begin and end with Dilshan. Since Sri Lankas most successful opening pair in Jayasuriya and Attapattu, Sri Lanka have not found a settled pair. Vandort , Tharanga, Mubarak, Warnapura, Paranavitana, Thirimanne have all featured in the last few years. An opener cannot be made overnight, which appears to be what the Selectors are hoping for when you look at that track record. A player needs time to fit into this highly specialised role. To learn his limitations and strengths. Specially in Sri Lanka where the step up from playing 3 day first class cricket against average bowlers on dead pitches to facing up to the best bowlers in the world cannot be quantified.
The Selectors have 2 important decisions to make. One is to ear mark a young player who they think is capable, which currently is Thirimanne, and give him the opportunity he needs to develop. He has proved that he can score runs at this level in the CB series. And while opening in tests is vastly different, Thirimanne has to be provided the opportunity to prove himself, either way. The openers slot isn’t something than can be constantly tinkered with without having a negative impact. In fact it already has.
The 2nd is Dilshan. Right now Sri Lanka’s openers have no plan. And plans are important. Andy Flower uses his openers to blunt the ball. They are not worried about scoring quickly like Australia was in the last decade. Their role is to see off the new ball and give Trott,Bell and KP the opportunity to build a massive first innings total from where Strauss and his bowlers can control the game.
Dilshan, when on song, offers an incredible dynamism to Sri Lanka in that he can score quickly to give Sri Lanka’s bowlers more time than was needed when Murali was around to bowl a team out. But it is his style of play that is also hurting the team at the moment. Too often Dilshan seems to throw his wicket away, mindlessly throwing his bat at every ball. There is only so many times you can turn away and say ‘well that’s how he plays’, as India are now finding with Sehwag.
Can Sri Lanka afford to lose that significant opportunity by dropping him down the order and relying on a more sedate but hopefully more solid combination? If so and ignoring what it might entail as personnel to support such a move, do the Selectors have the nuance and patience to back up those players in what will almost certainly will be a steep learning curve. Based on past evidence, you shouldn’t be holding your breath.
The decision Sri Lanka makes around Dilshan and the openers will prove to be as important a one as they will make in this re-rebuilding phase under Jaywardene. Sri Lanka won in Galle after being 14-3 and 15-3. Don’t count on that happening very often.